“Forever Chemicals” Are an Opportunity for Ever-Improving Innovations in Water Treatment

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On April 10, 2024, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the final National Drinking Water Standards (NDWS) for six per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFASs) known to increase the risk of cancer and cause other health issues. The NDWS is the first federal regulation that will require water utilities to test for the chemicals and implement technologies to reduce concentrations in drinking water. The deadline for NDWS compliance with these new regulations is April 2029. Failure to comply could result in fines of up to USD 25,000 per day, as well as potential criminal penalties.

Because of the chemicals’ widespread use and poor waste management practices over decades, PFASs are found in the soil, bodies of water, groundwater, and even in the air. As a result, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that about 45% of the nation’s tap water has at least one type of PFAS chemical. (The NDWS covers only six of the 32 PFAS chemicals detected in nearly half of all U.S. water systems.) The chemicals bioaccumulate in humans over time — the “forever chemicals” tag comes from their resistance to chemical decomposition. 

The cost of testing, treating, and remediation/destruction of PFASs won’t be limited to water utilities. Under the updated Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, more than 1,700 facilities that treat, store, or dispose hazardous waste could be required to clean PFASs contamination. This will force wastewater treatment plants, landfill operators, biosolids companies, and industrial facilities that produce these chemicals to invest in technologies to maintain compliance. 

PFAS ChemicalMaximum Concentration Limit (ng/L or ppt)
Table 1. This table shows the maximum concentration limits of PFASs under the new EPA drinking water standards. The rule covers perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), perfluorooctane sulfate (PFOS), perfluorononanoic acid (PFNA), perfluorohexanesulfonic acid (PFHxS), shorter-chain PFASs (GenX), and a mixuture of two or more of these PFAS chemicals

Chemicals companies have paid out huge settlements and fines arising from their PFAS pollution. This toll includes 3M’s USD 12.5 billion (over 13 years) and DuPont’s USD 1.1 billion (including its spinoffs Chemours and Corteva), payable to water utilities across the U.S. Alongside the new regulations, the U.S. government will provide USD 1 billion in funding to help utilities test and treat PFASs in affected communities. However, one study found that removal and destruction of PFASs from just one state (Minnesota, where 3M is headquartered) could cost up to USD 1.4 billion per year.

PFAS Testing: As these new requirements come into force over the next five years, low-cost tools capable of rapidly measuring PFASs at part-per-trillion (ppt) levels in water, soil, and other mediums will be needed. Liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry is currently the only EPA-approved method to test for PFASs in drinking water, while isotope dilution is applied for sources like groundwater and wastewater. While these tests are sensitive for detection down to low ppt levels, it can take days to deliver results, are expensive (>USD 100/sample), and need trained professionals to analyze results. On-site testing through optical and electrochemical sensor currently under development from companies like FREDSense and Allonia, are likely to provide faster and more near-time control in PFAS management. 

PFAS Removal: The EPA has identified the most effective commercially available technology for PFAS removal or treatment: activated carbon, ion exchange, and membrane systems. However, incumbent removal and concentration technologies have primarily treated legacy PFAS chemistries and are less effective against short-chain variants that break through treatment barriers. As a result, incumbent solutions incur higher costs because they need frequent replacement, use more reagents, and/or generate more brine. Thus, incumbent technologies will be uneconomical to meet new discharge regulations. Innovation in removal and concentration technologies is needed. 

One novel approach is better adsorbents, such as CycloPure’s dexsorb, which recently received approval from the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection to remove these persistent contaminants. Newer, low-energy approaches like surface activation foam fractionation are now being commercially deployed that can handle  long- and short-chain PFASs, often a challenge for incumbent technologies. 

PFAS Destruction: “Elimination” processes, or the reintroduction of altered compounds into the environment, are currently cost prohibitive but are an area ripe for innovative, low-cost solutions. PFAS-concentrated sludge or brine is often sold to biosolids companies, landfills, or incinerated. The cost to transport and destroy PFAS is staggeringly high — around USD 1,000/tonne–USD 2,000/tonne. Early stage companies are developing creative solutions to this expensive problem and testing systems that can treat challenging wastes in other industries, such as supercritical water oxidation, gasification, hydrothermal alkaline treatment, and electrochemical oxidation processes. Yet, most solutions remain in early stage pilots. The next 12 to 18 months will be crucial to identify winners and losers as several players, including Battelle, 374Water, Aquagga, and Aclarity, demonstrate scalability, PFAS destruction efficacy, and the cost of treatment on different waste streams.

The cost of PFAS detection and remediation will be a major pain point for water utilities and affected manufacturers, but the new regulations should create a bonanza for industrial companies and chemical manufacturers that can supply innovative technologies and materials. Industrial companies need to start scouting and investing in emerging technologies today to develop commercially viable solutions by 2029

For more information, Lux recently published the report “PFAS Restrictions, Expected Disruptions, and Emerging Innovations” that discusses four levels of PFAS elimination — manufacturing, product, public health, and environmental — that are driving the need for replacements and/or remediation.

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